Food for thought

Musical Linguist at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Musical Linguist at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I expect you have eaten well over the break and are probably, like me, a bit podgier than a couple of weeks ago – or maybe not?

If there is anything that might put you off your food it is the sound of the President of the NFU going on about the need for greater food production, and he was banging on about this some time over the Christmas break.

Some might think that there is huge hypocrisy in the NFU position being pro-biofuels at the same time as talking about the need for more food production.  And some might think that all this talk of food production is just an attempt to find some moral high ground for an industry that has presided over the removal of wildlife from the countryside.  Some might think that talking about starvation is a rather crude way to attempt to justify reducing regulation on farmers and protecting or increasing the already vast amounts of public money that go into farming.

But maybe nobody thinks those things, but that doesn’t mean that anyone would be as foolish as to think that UK food production is anything but a drop in the ocean in feeding the world, nor that increased food production in the UK is going to go straight into the mouths of the starving across the world.

Under current circumstances, increasing our food production would allow us to sell more food to the EU – 10 out of the top 11 countries (in terms of economic value to us) to which we export food are EU countries with the USA being in the mix. Ireland is the country to which we export most food and our soup sales are doing very well there but unless we are servicing Ireland’s soup kitchens and that is freeing up resources to send to the world’s most needy countries then it is difficult to see how our increased production is feeding the world.  Yes we live in a connected single world but the connections are rather more complicated than the diet of ‘hungry world – more UK food production’ that we are fed by some in the farming industry.  Our sales of chocolate to South Africa almost doubled in the first 6 months of 2012 compared with the same months of 2011.

Wait for the NFU to argue that the best way to kick-start the UK economy is to give money to farmers (hang on – they already do!) and that the easiest way to reduce poverty in Africa is to give more money to barley barons in Cambridgeshire.

Government is a bit more honest about all this. Owen Paterson said “We want Defra to be the agency that’s growing the rural economy,” he said. “And do that by unblocking any regulatory barriers abroad or here. In simple terms, we want to get out of people’s hair so they can get on and produce products they think suit the market best.”

Paterson is building on Jim Paice’s work to increase pork exports to China – there isn’t much about feeding the world in this, it’s about British jobs and the rural economy, the same as most export drives.  Oh, and we’ll sell more cheese to the French too.

It’s difficult for NGOs to argue against food production as it sounds a bit churlish, so I was interested to see the recent position statement by Wildlife and Countryside Link on food production:

  1. The farmers, landowners and food producers creating and maintaining a high quality natural environment need to be properly rewarded for the provision of ‘public goods’
  2. Government policies must ensure that food production in the UK is environmentally sustainable and must not promote increases in production where this damages or degrades the environment, human well-being or animal welfare
  3. Agri-tech solutions to increasing food production, including genetic modification (GM), should not be promoted at the expense of developing and implementing agro-ecological approaches
  4. Taking land out of production for conservation or flooding should be recognised as providing important environmental benefits
  5. The EU should lead the way in developing and implementing sustainable responses to climate change in agriculture
  6. The CAP should be reformed to create a European Sustainable Land Management Policy that supports the delivery of environmental public goods across Europe.
  7. Steps should be taken by the EU and the Government to prevent biofuel production damaging the environment and contributing to increases in the price of food
  8. Introducing measures to reduce food waste should be made a priority
  9. Steps should be taken to encourage more sustainable diets to address the environmental issues arising from food consumption
  10. The benefits of extensive grazing systems should be given greater recognition and support by policy makers and the food industry

This statement was agreed by Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, Campaign to Protect Rural England, Friends of the Earth, Plantlife, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Wildlife Trusts, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Woodland Trust, WWF-UK.  The National Trust is again conspicuous by its absence but the big-hitters are all in this list.

I would generally agree with this list but some of it is written in code, and some of it might even be wrong.  Such is the fate of joint statements.

Here would be my version of the same points:

  1. Reducing food waste is far more important than increasing food production
  2. More sustainable diets, particularly eating less, and eating less meat, would reduce many environmental issues arising from food production
  3. We should put more effort into making EU marine fisheries sustainable if we are remotely serious about increasing food production sustainably
  4. Use of biofuels in the EU should cease
  5. Government policies must ensure that food production in the UK is environmentally sustainable and must not promote increases in production where this degrades the environment, reduces human well-being or increases animal suffering
  6. Land is used for more than food production and landowners who create and maintain a high quality natural environment need to be properly rewarded, and those who do not should not be rewarded except by the market
  7. New approaches to food production, including genetic modification, should be promoted if they promote sustainable food production
  8. Agriculture must make its full contribution to meeting UK Climate Change Act commitments of 80% CO2 reductions by 2050 and that might entail reducing food production

Maybe you could do much better?

I wonder what the NFU thinks of these two lists and whether they have their own list? Let’s ask them – click here and don’t forget to point out that  you pay for the billions of pounds invested by the taxpayer to farming each year.

By stu_spivack (Turkey) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By stu_spivack (Turkey) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

48 Replies to “Food for thought”

  1. With respect to your point number 4 I would suggest that stopping the use of all biofuels goes too far. Biofuels can be and are produced from waste in a variety of ways and where this is the case provide a useful waste management solution as well as contributing to energy supplies. I agree that turning land over from food production to biofuel production is undesirable and that is what I would sugest should be curtailed.

    1. Jonathan – you are probably right although the vast majority of biofuels used in the UK are not derived from waste. It would be good if they were but they aren’t. And so today I would go for all-out ban as the benefits would far outweigh the disbenefits.

  2. Mark – happy new year.

    You might be interested to see Peter Kendall’s latest broadside reported in farmers weekly today

    There are a couple of interesting things here. First PK is ratcheting up the rhetoric aimed specifically at Defra and their position on CAP reform, which is SoS Paterson’s position apparently, that CAP should pay for public (environmental) goods. Kendall uses bold language arguing this is an “ideologically-driven” position. It’s a clever use of language as anything smacking of ideology these days is symbolic of tractor production targets or eugenics and implies that NFU’s position is evidence-based, when the opposite is the case.

    Secondly Peter K ie the NFU simultaneously blames climate change for a £1.3Bn black hole in farming for 2012, but argues against CAP payments being redirected to supporting provision of public environmental goods, such as, mitigation and adaptation to the effects of …. climate change. Does the NFU believe the best approach to tackling climate change impacts on farming is just to pay farmers compensation for their lost crops, rather than do something about it?

    1. Miles – I hadn’t seen that – thank you! It is too much to expect logic and consistency from the NFU – but why don’t commentators in the media point out the ridiculous and selfish nature of the NFU position?

      1. That particular organ is powered by advertising revenue from the agricultural supply industry, that’s why.

  3. Glad you moved food waste to #1!

    #4 still think thee is some mileage in using some wasre producrs as biofuel as per JW above.

    #5 we should be looking to further invcrease animal welfare rather than not increasing animal suffering…and that should apply to animal producrs sourcced from abroad too. I shudder to think what conditions some of the creatures I’ve ‘enjoyed’ this last week may have had to endure but there is little in the way of food labelling that tells me this and some is misleading, ‘processed in the EU’ could easily mean kept in abominable conditions elsewhere in the world. But even in the EU standards are far from uniform yet.

    Maybe we should look at how food is marketed and why. I love the A-Z McD’s advert very clever and must be true if it hasn’t been axed by the ASA but I still wouldn’t touch one of their products with a bargepole, millions do though

  4. Public subsidies are always likely to be distorting, that is their job. If they didn’t change anything there would be no point in them. The problem with farming subsidies is that no-one, including the NFU, knows any longer what they are trying to achieve. There is no more inherent benefit benefit in subsidising the farming industry than in subsidising coal mining, ship-building etc and the Conservatives stopped those, in my view correctly, many years back. Exporting food, like exporting anything else, is good if you do it economically, but otherwise a waste of public resources, since you are in effect giving as gift to the people who buy the subsidised exports. Taxes paid to fund any subsidy also make other industries less competitive, thus are likely to be job-destroying in the long term. This is not to say that we should not subsidise rural jobs, or the environment, or whatever else we want, but any subsidy needs to be clearly targeted and periodically reviewed to see if it is effective and value for money. It is time all farming subsidies were scrapped and if necessary, replaced by transparent and clearly targeted subsidies designed to provide clear and measurable deliverables. It is time Conservatives thought clearly about this. Farming is not a special case any more than mining is/was, its just another industry.

    1. Alistair – Happy New Year! I’d say that farming isn’t just another industry – indeed I’ve spent 20 years saying that – but with the NFU ‘leading’ it then it is so very tempting to say that it is. And if it is then it should leave Defra and move to BIS where nobody in government should take any notice of it.

      Farming isn’t just another industry, in my opinion, because many of the things we value from it are non-market goods – the song of a skylark, the buzzing of bumblebees, the landscape of hedges and trees, the clean water running off it and the carbon stored in soils (all of which are, come to think of it, in poor shape!). So farming has to do better at delivering non-market goods if it is to be entitled to the subsidies it currently receives.

      1. No farming doesn’t produce these things, though it clearly affects their provision, as in fact does coal mining! Farmers produce food or other products for a market as do other industries. If we want farmers to produce birds, or bees or carbon or whatever, then the subsidies to do that should be clear and farmers paid by results. I have no doubt that farmers could produce as many skylarks, grey partridges etc as we want, but are only likely to do so if we make those the product. Subsidies as we have at present with unclear goals will deliver unclear results. So what does Defra say are the goals of agricultural subsidy system?

  5. A few off-the-cuff remarks:

    I agree with Jonathan Wallace about your point 4. The outright ban that you suggest is the wrong apprach as it would eliminate those biofuel plants that have been installed with a view to environmental benefit and that are in fact having that affect. The example of small scale wood fuel plants created to bring woodland back into much needed management, and where that management has much needed ecological benefits, comes to mind.

    Regarding your point 5, isn’t the issue that the Government should take a long-term, holistic, “public benefit” view to land use? That is Government’s brief, not any single issue: economic, food production or environmental. Some land is best used for conservation, some for intensive food production (which may have negative environmental impacts), some for less intensive, more sustainable food production, some for development, etc. Your wording seems to suggest an “environmental benefit” overriding policy, when in fact their shouldn’t be any overriding interest. The problem is that, at present, short-term economic benefit seems to be the trump.

    Regarding point 7, a major concern with genetic modification is genetic leakage into the wider environment through cross-pollination with wild native species. Because of this risk, NGO’s should take a precautionary approach to genetic modification. To my mind, the risk of any genetic modification (including trial plots) would mean that it would not be sustainable in any circumstances.

    1. Pied wagtail – biofuel and biomass are a bit different. Practically none of UK-used biofuel derives from waste as I understand it. It could, but it doesn’t.

      I wouldn’t read my point #5 in that way.

      Genetic leakage through cross-pollination with native species is not always a possibility and is not often an issue. It is one of the things that should be thought about and examined as part of a sustainability audit and assessment. I am not a fan of GM crops but I wouldn’t rule them out without thinking about each proposed crop on a case by case basis.

      Thanks for your comment.

      1. Mark, on GM crops, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests that a)the effect of eating them on a long-term basis is almost entirely unresearched; b) some are so bad that they degrade the soil they are grown in; c) some need special pest control measures, which in turn help the pests evolve into super-pests; as well as other complaints (the commercial stranglehold the manufacturers insist on, for example). Given that all these are so – perhaps they aren’t, and I’ve swallowed anti-GM propaganda without proper research – it would be folly to give a green light at the moment. I’m not entirely anti-GM; but until the proper science has been done, is in the open and peer-reviewed, and the organisms shown to be non-harmful to human health AND the environment, I can’t support any attempt to open the door to them.

        1. Peter – welcome and thank you for your comment. I write about GM crops and my small role in the banning of them a decade ago in my book Fighting for Birds. I’m not a fan but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that GM crops could play a part in a more sustainable farming future. I’m not sure that is a very close prospect, nor even that it is very likely, but we would need to look at specific GM crops rather than have a blanket approach, I think. The biotech companies haven’t really come up with anything that looks great so far, I agree.

          We need to protect ourselves from environmental dangers but if GM crops are just ‘not very good’ then after a short spasm of use they would disappear from British farming.

      2. Mark, if you are referring to biodiesel and bio-ethanol used as transport fuels then I would agree that the great majority of this is produced from specifically grown crops which displace other land uses including, most damagingly, rain forest to make way for palm oil plantations. I entirely agree that this is in no way a green policy and should be stopped. Whether that also means that diesel derived from used cooking oil or from tallow produced from rendering of animal wastes should also be banned I am not so sure although I can see that it is less complicated to simply ban the fuels rather than try to regulate the market so that they can be allowable only from certain sources.
        With respect to other energy uses I am not sure whether you consider methane fom anaerobic digesters to be “biofuel” or classify it as something else again but I can only see that as beneficial addition to our energy mix.

  6. Does this mean I have to stop coppicing woodland – give up my wood burning stove and open hearth and turn the central heating up? 🙁

  7. Interesting and provocative stuff – including your point 7 in particular (I’ll take it as read that you want to see a strong and effective regulatory regime to ensure careful consideration of the impact of any GM releases to the environment).

    I’d take issue, though, with the argument that unless UK food production goes straight to the mouths of the starving, it’s not tackling world food security. This is one of those points where I find myself agreening with Peter Kendall from time to time. Even if increased UK production simply displaces imports in some sectors, we’re reducing our land footprint globally. If we’re concerned about direct and indirect land use impacts of biofuels (and we should be) then we should be similarly concerned about the direct and indirect land use impacts of food production increases or decreases in the UK. So your point 5 needs to take a global perspective on environmental impacts, not just a narrow UK one.

    There’s a bit of a leap from there, of course, to arguing that giving lots of public money to farms for free is an effective way of delivering sustainable food production. The basic point that we should be focusing public funds on identifiable non-market public benefits must be right.

    1. Martin – many thanks for your informed comment.

      The argument was not that UK food production has to go straight into the mouths of the starving but rather that producing more soup for Ireland is a pretty indirect route to feed any starving. Of course it is complicated – that’s why the NFU’s crude ‘we’re feeding the world so get off our backs with regulation’ cry is so irritating. Given the very indirect route by which increased UK food production might help the starving (eg displacing French cheese production and Irish soup production) it doesn’t take much to realise that there is precious little link between UK food production and a reduction in starvation. There might be one but where is the evidence please?

      If we increased food production in the UK by 10% over the next five years that would be amazing. But if we did how much would starvation be reduced? On the other hand, if we reduced food waste by 5% in five years that might have some impact. It would increase UK exports and reduce UK imports both of which would reduce, marginally, food prices through increased supply. Of course, it wouldn’t help UK farmers at all because producers don’t benefit from reduced demand. What are the figures for food waste? Over 20% of food is thrown away? That food is all paid for so a producer has already benefitted. Food producers would benefit if waste increased. And defra is the rural jobs Department these days. Where is the focus on reducing food waste (let alone on changing diet)?

      Point 5 wasn’t meant to be that parochial but UK politicians can only act in certain parts of the UK – and, you will correctly say, try to reach agreement within the EU. All governments should be doing the same. Unfortunately, as I remember it, WTO rules don’t allow us (the EU) to restrict imports on environmental grounds nor even on social grounds. Free trade is king and lords it over environmental and social concerns. Putting our own hosue in order is always a good start?

      Many thanks for your comment though – and I agree with your last paragraph completely. Please be careful about agreeing with Peter Kendall – it’s not a good habit – in fact you should think of a NY resolution to watch out for that.

  8. Mark
    Interesting blog. These lists are always compromises but the Wildlife Trusts and co-signatories have come up with some interesting points as have you. I am interested in making it easier for new entrants to get into agriculture and I suspect that they will come with a responsible attitude to the environment not least because it makes no sense not to look after the assets that will enable you to produce sustainably in the future.

    1. David – Happy New Year. Thank you.

      The attitude of new entrants to agriculture will partly be shaped by their role models. Just as racist behaviour by famous footballers would have implications on the school playground so would nonsense spouted by leaders of the farming community have implications for the conduct of farm businesses across the country. I’m glad that there are some sensible role models, like yourself, out there but there are plenty of bad models to follow too. Tell me whether you think Farmers Weekly does a good job in educating and informing the next generation of farmers.

  9. Biofuel used in UK:
    – about 3/5 is biodiesel and 2/5 bioethanol
    – for bioethanol it’s basically all from food crops
    – for biodiesel, half comes from used cooking oil (ie 30% of total)
    – but the other biodiesel feedstocks (soy, palm, rape) are probably among the least green feedstocks

    use of waste cooking oil as biofuel in this way is almost certainly a Good Thing but probably has limited overall impact because I expect much of the potential is already being exploited yet it is still supplying only ~1% of road fuel demand

    stats here:

  10. Mark,
    Really like point 1&2 they kind of hit home, to me. But I don’t think it’s a case of sustainable diets. I know people will point to the increase in Brit’s waistlines, but some of that increase can be put down to ingredients such as saturated fat etc. I think for point 1&2 to be implemented you have to tackle the source…supermarkets. Supermarkets buy in such large quantities just to reduce cost, tax the supermarkets on not only what they buy, but what they throw away/recycle might make an impact. So much ends up in the bins and sent back on (my) lorry and then sent to “recycyling” facilities. Did anyone watch that Heston Bloomenthall TV series were he was making massive oversized food? Yet not one complaint of wasteage from joe public.
    I seem to recall alot of conservationist were applauding bio-fuel when it first came to market, almost forcing certain car manufactuers to bio-fuelled engines (Land Rover,BMW etc) there wasn’t the intial uptake for bio-fuels from car manufactuers until certain organisations forced their hands, now those organisations are saying it’s wrong to use bio-fuels and when are Greenpeace going to allow one MR.Clarkson to throw a pie in their face when they stand up at say electric cars aren’t a solution.
    I would personally like to see the current subsidy system to be scrapped. It’s being received by some who just happen to have a lot of land and very little farming taking place on that land. Like any benefits received by elderly/sick or unemployed it should be means tested.

  11. Considering the last point in history that the UK was totally self sufficient in food production was 1812 surely there is a wider point for discussion. If our food is imported from global sources what does our carbon footprint look like when offset against increasing our food production and reclaiming a higher percentage of self reliance?

    Which ever side of the equation you wish to argue for or against, there is a risk of being accused of ‘NIMBYism’. As with all things it appears there needs to be balance and as often happens our view of true equality is skewed by our own personal agendas.

  12. Mark more or less agree with all your points except the last one and there I do not see any point in myself or U K making large sacrifices in being competitive and financially for every person in the U K while we have major polluters taking advantage of ignoring climate change initiatives.
    One point I would make is that Farmers Weekly is just really anothermagazine and no interest in setting example to next generation.That is what Farm Colleges are for and are doing a good job.
    What is needed is the right incentives for what Farmland birds in particular need.
    There is nothing wrong with aiming for more production as long as it goes hand in hand with getting more wildlife.Even if you think it will not help feed the starving it will at least help our bankrupt country with the balance of payments.

  13. While agreeing with Peter Kendall needs careful consideration, anyone going a’greening with Peter Kendall has to be a good thing as Peter needs all the greening he can get, especially from someone like Martin.

  14. About 10% of the UK’s arable land is used to grow grain for distilling or brewing. That’s not going to feed the world either so I’ll look forward to the NFU campaigning for an end to that as well on moral grounds. Not to mention growing daffodils on high quality arable farmland.

    Feeding grain to cattle is also a highly questionable way of feeding the world. Some might say that feeding grain to any animals is inefficient, but as a meat eater I can’t really push that too far. At least chickens and pigs are more efficient converters of grain to meat than cows are.

    1. Paul, are you a beer drinker? Who is going to stop consuming alcohol on this basis? It’s a fair point you raise though. What is the difference between growing wheat for bioethanol and growing barley for alcohol consumption in this context? Perhaps this should be on the list too. There will of course be some calorific content of the beer etc.. produced from barley used in this way. In both cases you have to remember there is a by-product from distilling/brewing grain for ethanol in the form of a high-protein feed, and this can be utilised by cattle in particular.

      1. Hi Andy, I am an occasional beer drinker and an even more occasional whisky drinker. My comment was tongue in cheek. The ‘moral’ argument that we can’t afford to put land into grass margins, wild bird cover and other agri-environment measures has become increasingly obvious from some quarters in recent years. My point was that if we were really bothered about feeding the world, we would only consume grass-fed beef and milk from areas unsuited to arable cropping, while in arable areas we would maximise the amount of land used to produce crops that are directly consumed by humans.

        Of course, in practice, as you suggest, our agricultural and food production systems are highly complex and inter-dependent, and driven by money, either from the marketplace or government grants and subsidies. I just wish there was a bit more honesty about people’s motives (i.e. making more money), rather than pretending it is about morality.

        Personally I think there is plenty of room for wildlife and food (and drink) production in the British landscape. Not so sure about biofuels though.

        1. Paul – we’d have to stop using land elsewhere in the world for tobacco too if we were at all serious about feeding the starving. Let’s hear the NFU coming out against fags.

        2. “I just wish there was a bit more honesty about people’s motives (i.e. making more money), rather than pretending it is about morality”

          Agreed. There are many farmers (not all Denis!) more than happy to play the morality card when it suits them.

          Whilst giving a talk to a group of (mostly very nice) farmers some years ago on the now defunct Countryside Stewardship Scheme, I was berated quite agressively by one farmer on the immorality of taking land out of production for wildlife. It was his firm opinion that farmland should only ever be used for producing food. I conceded that he may have a point, and asked him if he thought the same principle applied to the not inconsiderable area of land he kept for horse paddocks and horse haylage. After declaring “I’m not going to my waste his time listening to this bollocks”, he swiftly flounced out of the room (ala Patterson in the Commons badger debate), pausing only to call me an “Effing Communist!”, which was thoughtful of him.

          I gather the same farmer now grows quite a bit of Miscanthus.

          1. Please excuse the appalling typos 3rd para, 5th sentence, although I’m sure you understand what I meant. On New Years Day, I suffered the ignominy of treading on my reading glasses whilst searching for them, a bleak moment it has to be said…I’m only 35 you know.

        3. Paul, completely agree with your arguments about using our land to grow the most appropriate food and that our diet needs to change.

          Mark, as well as tobacco you could add palm oil and all the other intensive tropical crops grown by US multinationals, like bananas and coffee. We can all influence that by buying fairtrade products grown by small producers.

  15. One of the big problems with farming and the drive to produce more is that the profits of this higher level of productivity are channeled into the coffers of those who process and package food, not to farmers who operate good husbandry, leaving them little choice but to industrialise their production. Food is not cheaper, but there is more profit available to those who package and process, adding salt, sugar and corn syrup in the process, and helping to cause obesity and diabetes, among other things.

    One way of redressing the balance would be to charge at least some VAT on processed food, leaving unprocessed, fresh food exempt. Unprocessed food is artificially overpriced in supermarkets as they don’t make much margin on it, driving people to processed food which attracts higher profits.

    It would need careful definitions e.g. flour and milk are “processed” but are clearly dietary staples.

    The CAP also needs to reward good husbandry, including good environmental management, and ensure that not all the subsidies go into the hands of industrial scale farmers, perhaps by having higher rates for smaller holdings.

    1. Sarah – a very interesting suggestion, which I haven’t heard before. I can see it might have quite a lot going for it. Welcome and thank you!

  16. Where do you start with that many posts as an arable farmer but I suppose a few basic facts might add to the discussion.

    There is another “perfect storm” at the moment in agricultural commodities with demand increasing and supply reducing. Consumption is greater in the
    Far East and especially China plus the biofuels usage of maize in the US remains at a record high. (There are only two biofuels of any importance which are maize and sugarcane on a global basis, biodiesel from rape and palm oil based fuels form a very small percentage world wide). Supply is reducing due to both climatic changes and environmental restrictions. Climate wise we have just seen the worst drought on record in the USA maize belt and like it or not the only reason that the effects were not worse was due to the widespread use of GM in corn and soya. The FSU block in Eastern Europe has also had poor harvests with no exportable surplus to speak off and in the UK and N Europe harvests have been poor. Uk wheat production is the lowest since 1976 at somewhere around 12mt as opposed to 18/19 mt. Environmental restrictions in the EU block are starting to have a major impact on production levels and this is really twofold with legislation concerning new fungicides and widespread objections to any form of GM cropping.

    Putting this into context as per the comments on the blog it’s very hard to see where we go from here. Cuts in agricultural research, the domination of GM technology world wide (except EU), the increased frequency of severe global climatic events and the ever increasing world demand for food all paint a worrying picture. If the Uk or EU fails to produce an exportable surplus then this has an effect on net importers economies which tend to be poorer economies; is this fair ?

    The other issue that tends to be forgotten in all this is one of geology. The soil types which are geologically young enough to support major arable production are almost all in the western economies. This puts a dynamic into the discussion where it becomes justifiable to consider the morals of using what is a finite resource for non food (or environmental ?) purposes. This becomes especially relevant when you consider that because of exporting restrictions the EU has effectively kept GM technology out of major areas world wide where this technology would have substantial increased production in those poorer economies, namely Africa.

    My main point is that our values and concerns about agricultural production and the environment are already having an impact world wide as our legislation is European not just UK based. We are quick to criticise the US for biofuels but a significant part of the blame lies closer to home. How do we get what we want while not impacting detrimentally on poorer countries ?

    1. Julian – interesting points, thank you. reducing waste and reducing demand ourselves is always the place to start (though not to stop).

      Many of us are uneasy that much of the funding for new technology comes from industry rather than public funding. Why should I trust Monsanto to produce a technology to use in my countryside?

  17. Mark,

    I agree; the “terminator gene” stories certainly discredited Monsanto and to some extent Dow and caused alarm in the non-Gm sector quite rightly. Apart from the ecosystem issues and just concentrating on human safety; I think I’m right in saying that there is not one documented incident of GM consumption resulting in harm. The fact is that the industry learnt from its PR disaster with GM and has kept modern advances like gene mapping and mutant gene selection firmly in house this time round with actual the John Innes centre in Norwich being one of the leading world centres (with a recent large support grant from Bill Gates).

    Personally I think we are some way off from a scenario where demand exceeds supply (even though S/D on maize is 4/6 weeks currently) but we are unprepared I feel. Last time round we had the Green Revolution which saved us, this time it will be technology both mechanical and biological which will be the key. I also feel that the farm support argument is becoming outdated. I think that in a decade’s time we will look back and think why didn’t we channel support into updating UK and European farming in terms of infrastructure. We have the technology available to produce more and still have the environment we want if we just grasped R&D back into the public sector and away from agribusinesses where it is firmly placed now. I think most of you contributors would be amazed at the technology available in agriculture even today which has massive advantages in terms of yield and environmental protection if it was widely adopted. Unfortunately the last time we were in this position was after the devastation of the war years and rationing which lead to the CAP and its mountains of food etc. which has distorted our views on support with the political right seeing it as market distortion and the left seeing it as feather bedding and elitist (no guessing your view then !)

    1. The weird thing about the US maize crop that you mention Julian was the fact the biggest imapct, apart from price of food, was the effect it had on PORK prices in the US. As alot of the US maize crop was used as pig feed. U.S farmers had to sell piglets at a younger age as they simply didn’t have food to feed them, thus less pork on the market=a rise in price. I’m also interested in British agri-business that have gone to old Soviet block countries and have land grabbed all the small farms and turned them in to one big farms, these countries aren’t bound by the redtape of the EU states in regards to setasides,hedges and pesticides etc.

  18. Douglas yes good point but of course several FSU countries came into the EU subsequently and now are within the CAP as second class members. I suppose that the main two outside of any controls are of course Russia and Ukraine, the former has quite a bad track record on rewarding outside investment and both have a harsh climate which severely limits their productivity. Ukraine is very interesting as it has the infamous claim to being the last western county to see serious famine caused by severe climate and Stalin’s drive for collective farms. Your point about western farmers grappling the small farms from the locals isn’t really reality since post communism agricultural production was collective even if ownership such as in UKr was shared. As an aside I’ve visited several FSU farms and I was shocked by the level of rural unemployment that western farming has brought with it. This has led to massive issues with pilfering and opportunist self help. I asked one farmer why all his smart tractor fleet was standing outside while a perfectly good shed was available only to be told that its was easier to count them every hour outside to see if one was missing.

  19. Ah, but Julian the Brit Agri-business was going in a buying up the “collective farms” offering big money to the struggling farmers and tearing down any boundaries/hedges and producing “mega-farms” this created uneployment/poverty etc and was even featured on Countryfile as a “wise” investment oppurtunity and for balance they had some man on there talking about the impact on Cranes, so I’m afraid it’s a very big reality, can’t be certain but I’m sure that was the Ukraine, but I might be wrong. How ironic the bloke had to check on his tractor fleet every hour, seeing as it’s been aleged/reported the majority of thefts from farms in the UK end up in that part of the world….

  20. Thanks Douglas for the links; food security is a massive issue especially for the Chinnese, I keep thinking they might offer me some decent cash !

  21. Mark – happy new year. Surely if increasing UK food production involves using more fossil fuels, and then exporting it around the world using still more fossil fuels, this will ultimately cause more starvation than it will solve through accelerating climate change – even if in the short term some of that exported food did find it’s way to those genuinely in need? So your emphasis on reducing food waste and producing sustainably is spot on IMHO, which together with Julian’s technology in agriculture for increasing yield and environmental protection offers the best hope both for food security and the countryside.

  22. While GM is being promoted as the essential Answer to Everything including flooding, apparently, so far GM has not delivered any true yield benefits. Only protection of yield against loss from insect feeding or resistance to non-specific herbicides. As far as I know there has been no increase in photosynthetic product per unit of irradicance – but that’s only as far as I know. So GM is no different in that respect from conventional plant breeding, where yield increases derive from tweaks to harvest index and introduction of genes for resistance from “wild” types, often in multiple combinations.

    If/when something Really Useful comes along – like N-fixation in cereals – it will be an interesting debate. How will those implacably opposed to GM argue against a development which would eliminate a large amount of energy use from food production? I would like to be around for that debate, but I probably won’t be. Tick Tock.

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